Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review - Jane Austen's Emma

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Published by: Max Press
Publication Date: 1815
Format: Hardcover, 240 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Emma Woodhouse is the center of her world. Looked upon by all in her small community as the perfect woman, the doting daughter, the ideal future wife. Yet little do they realize that she is the spider at the center of a web thinking everyone is there for her amusement. They are mere playthings to her and she has just lost her most favorite toy. Her governess Miss Taylor has married and become Mrs. Weston, thus constricting Emma's household to just her and her father and the occasional visits from Mr. Knightly. Therefore, despite Mr. Knightly's stern warnings, Emma finds herself a new favorite to play matchmaker with. Harriet Smith is a nobody, her parents having given her away. Emma has fanciful notions of whom Harriet's parents could be and therefore eschews Harriet marrying the kind farmer Robert Martin and sets Harriet on the path to conjugal bliss with the vicar Mr. Elton. But Mr. Elton is a social climber and fancies that he is worthy of Emma's hand. Once aware of her mistake you'd think that Emma would have taken the hint and stopped her matchmaking, but she soldiers on. Mr. Weston's son, Frank Churchill soon arrives on the scene to pay his respects to his new mother, and while first marked out for Emma, Emma soon thinks that happy is the man who changes Emma for Harriet. In all her ploys Emma never really sees that she is being callous and her jokes are at the expense of others, such as the poor Miss Bates and her niece Jane Fairfax, and have real world consequences. She lives in a bubble that desperately needs to be burst, and no matter how hard Mr. Knightly tries he can't seem to get through to Emma. In fact it's her favorite new toy, Harriet, who wields the needle and pops the bubble, opening Emma's eyes while also taking the shine off herself. Will Emma be able to fix what her childish games have wrought? Or will she lose her happily ever after?

Of all Austen's books Emma was the one I was most worried about rereading. Emma is actually the Austen book I have reread most recently before this year and it was because of that experience I was leery. It was during that February that Emma and I developed a loathing for each other. I'm sure it was mutual. She lumped me in with the Misses Bateses of the world and I thought she was a spoiled brat who needed to be taught a lesson. We parted. Not amicably. Yet here I am daring to reread her adventures in manipulating her small group of "friends." I have decided to refrain from passing judgment on her and she isn't allowed to comment on me. I think it's led to a far more pleasurable experience for us both. Though there are things I can't help but question on every reading of this book... mainly the Mr. Knightly/Emma age gap. I totally agree with Andrew Davies that having a man sixteen years older than you saying he first loved you when you were thirteen is more than a little icky. If Mr. Knightly had just refrained from saying that and a few other lines he wouldn't have come across as the Humbert Humbert of his day. Because really, when you think of it, a sixteen year age difference isn't that creepy. In fact there's far more than sixteen years between Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, and there's eighteen between me and Colin Firth, not that I've counted that often... But what I found interesting this time is that this creep factor wasn't so much there for me anymore. Perhaps it's because I have found far bigger creeps in this book, I'm sorry Frank Churchill, you're an irredeemable psychopath. Or perhaps it's because I see why Emma falls for Mr. Knightly. It's not his superiority above all others, it's the fact that Emma has Daddy issues. Serious Daddy issues. Issues that lead her to basically marry her "other" father. Are we to blame Mr. Knightly for taking advantage of the situation and forming Emma into the perfect woman? Or should we just say Emma needs therapy? My vote is for therapy.

As to why Emma so desperately needs therapy lets look to her treatment of Harriet. Now I'm not talking about controlling Harriet's expectations and romantic inclinations, which just shows that Emma is a bully, it's how she drops her like a hot potato as soon as Mr. Knightly comes between them. She's all for raising Harriet up and helping her find a better place in the world until Harriet targets that which Emma wants and then she literally can not get rid of Harriet fast enough sending her off to London. While distancing herself from this tangled situation might be expected, her throwing shade on Harriet isn't. All the previous objections as to "playing" with Harriet from Mr. Knightly are instantly seen. Emma raising Harriet above her station is odious. Harriet must remain in the muck where she belongs! Harriet is the lowest of the low. Woe betide anyone who ever liked or respected Harriet. She is now unclean and must away to her farmer never to be seen again. EXCUSE ME!?! This was Emma's protege, her best friend, her favorite toy, and she would destroy her like this? At least Mr. Knightly got Harriet back on track with her farmer, but Emma would have been happy if it had all disappeared. What confuses me most though is what is Austen saying about class in this instance? Time and time again her books have shown the plucky yet poor heroine rise above her station to find true love. Yet here she seems to be saying that love must be found within your station. Or at least if you're Harriet. Harriet seems to be a weird case removed from all that is Austen. Is it because of her unknown parentage? Because to an outsider Jane Fairfax is in much the same situation but somehow because of "old family ties" she's exempt and allowed to rise up. So the point of the book was to teach Emma what? That people have their place and she should grow up and follow the rules of the world around her? That everything is fine now that Harriet is back in her place, luckily with her own happily ever after? It seems antithesis to all Austen that came before or after. Where's the humor?

Because with Northanger Abbey we can clearly see that Austen wasn't one to pass up a good joke or a chance to parody. We see this again in Emma, though not quite so obviously. Literature is rife with orphans. It seems that you literally can't be a hero or heroine without losing one or both of your parents. Dickens would heartily embrace this at the end of the century in the most dramatic ways possible. In fact it's become such a trope that even Disney does it. And who, when a child, didn't daydream that they were off on an adventure and not a thought was given to the idea of parents living or dead? Yet Austen wanted to mess with this a little, just as she messed with the heroine archetype. It really wasn't until Thackeray and Vanity Fair thirty-three years later that we had a novel purposefully written sans heroine, but with Emma Woodhouse Austen came close. To muddy the heroine waters Emma isn't the only orphan, having lost her mother and then having lost Miss Taylor to marriage. In fact Emma, Harriet, Jane, AND Frank are all orphans. Jane and Harriet are in fact far closer to traditional Austen heroines than Emma herself is. It's like Austen wanted to take things to the farthest extreme possible. I mean yes, looking back now at the life expectancy and health care then available it's not surprising that many people were without a parent, but to have four main characters in one small town all deprived of one or both parental units? Austen is taking the piss and enjoying every second of it. What's more it's able to show how the loss of a parents affects one based on wealth and sex. Frank fares the best, being a man, he could have made his fortune, but instead a fortune just lands in his lap from relatives. Emma is also fine, being a woman of independent means. Harriet has a decent allowance, but her unknown parentage is a blight, one that can not be overcome, which a man in a similar situation might succeed in doing. Yet it's Jane who fares the worst. With no money she can't even rely on the love of those who raised her, she must seek her way in the world on her own, like a true Austen heroine.

Yet Jane is of course rescued by a proposal of marriage. In fact the most important event in Austen's novels is the conclusion when everyone gets perfect happiness, a phrase used too many times in Emma, when the marriage bans are read. Though Austen is odd in that for some reason she never fully writes the proposals which seal the end of our heroine's character arc. She might have a line of dialogue, but usually it's just that everything was settled when and how one would expect. There is no detail, no ardent declarations. The actual event is left to our own imaginations, and yet Austen does show proposals to two heroines. Proposals that are to be rejected. In fact, it feels like Austen doesn't feel herself up to writing earnest proposals but is fully willing to embrace writing comedic ones. No one can deny her wit is sharp as a razor. We of course must forget about Mr. Darcy's first attempt at securing Elizabeth's hand and instead focus on Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, oddly both men of the cloth. Their proposals and the ensuing rejections are hilarious and easily a highlight of their respective stories. Mr. Collins is unwilling to believe that anyone would reject him and thinks it all a ploy, ah poor delusional man. Whereas Mr. Elton? Mr. Elton is drunk as a skunk and just goes for broke. His proposal to Emma is the culmination of the first part of the book where the slate is then wiped clean in anticipation of the arrival of Frank Churchill. Mr. Elton must exit stage left but he must do so in a glorious flame of mortification. Not to muddy the waters too much with bringing in adaptations, but Alan Cumming in the carriage on Christmas Eve throwing himself at Gwyneth Paltrow? That is movie perfection and possible only because of Austen's perfection. Then again, I do love me some Alan Cumming in basically anything. Or nothing, given his tendency to, you know...

Though this reading was more about serendipity than anything else. Yes, sometimes serendipity plays a part in reading a book. It might be the confluence of a TV show you're watching or a song you hear on the radio while also reading a book that makes things clearer, makes you see a connection, makes both better. They elevate each other. This happened to me because of rereading Emma at the same time as Twin Peaks returned to the small screen. I have had a love of Twin Peaks since my parents amazingly let me watch it at the age of eleven. I have gone back to the show again and again over the years, much as I have the works of Austen, and yet I never once thought of connecting the two until now. There is little doubt in my mind that David Lynch is a fan of Austen. Comparing them side by side it's obvious. There's a universal humanity to the way they both approach characters. They set their stories in small contained environments that have their own set of rules. They revel in the absurd. I can easily see Mr. Collins as an inhabitant of Lynch's universe, but more than anyone else, Miss Bates belongs in Twin Peaks. Miss Bates might be the most laughed at or pitied character in Emma with her pages of unbroken rambling dialogue but in her I see the underpinnings of the denizens of Twin Peaks. In Lynch's world characters are strange, they ramble on, they annoy you, you laugh at them, but in the end, you come to pity, and eventually to love them. You can especially see this in the arc of the Log Lady, who was always an odd outsider yet whose brief appearance in the new series prior to her death gave her a poignancy, much as Miss Bates does in Emma. What this revelation does to me is it shows me not just the staying power of Austen but why I have kept going back to Twin Peaks over the years. Lynch tapped into the universal human experience in the same way Austen did over two hundred years earlier. Makes you wonder if Twin Peaks will still be be discussed a couple hundred years from now...

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